A recent debate on the merits and efficacy of voting took off in the libertarian blogosphere this past week. Professor Bryan Caplan kicked it off with a spirited condemnation of voting in a post at Econlib:
I do not vote. Since I’m an economist, the parsimonious explanation is that (a) I know the probability of voter decisiveness is astronomically low, and (b) I selfishly value my time. But that’s hardly adequate. I spend my time on many quixotic missions, like promoting open borders. So why not vote?
My honest answer begins with extreme disgust. When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst. When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies. Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others. Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others. But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me. When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary. I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.
To which fellow Econlib editor David Henderson offered two ripostes in as many response pieces, also at Econlib:
Suppose that by not voting you’re setting a bad example for your audience. A number of young, impressionable people see your talks or read your blog and are convinced by your arguments. But they are then put off by your refusal to vote. Some of them remain fully convinced of your arguments, but you persuade them not to vote. And some decide that you’re just not serious if you’re not putting forth the tiny effort required to vote, so you lose them completely. I want to ask how many such people would there need to be to convince you to vote? Is there a number? A single vote is small, but a room full of voters could sway an election, particularly at the local and state level.
You can check out the first of Henderson’s responses here.
Both Caplan and Henderson make valid points and the decision to vote ultimately is an individual choice. Enter professor Don Boudreaux, blogging over at Cafe Hayek. Boudreaux enters the voting foray in defense of Caplan’s decision to not subject himself to the moral quandary that is the voting booth. Boudreaux writes:
The conclusion is that one should set an example for others to vote. And because such example-setting perhaps has a high-enough probability of leading to better election outcomes, the act of voting is perhaps indeed worthwhile.
As David might say, I’m underwhelmed – for three reasons.
First and least importantly, what if Bryan’s refusal to vote dissuades not only ‘good’ voters from voting but also ‘bad’ voters from voting? Although Bryan is an avowed libertarian, many of his arguments against voting might also appeal to statists. It’s not implausible that if Bryan sets an example by voting that he will thereby inspire more statists than libertarians to vote.
Second, David’s argument is too state-centric. If you believe that the economy and society are inert until, unless, and only insofar as government officials take some stance toward it, then what those officials do matters above all. If those officials are pro-liberty, society will pursue a pro-liberty course; if those officials are statists, society will pursue a statist course. David’s argument, perhaps unintentionally, rests on the presumption that the only, or the most, important influence on the course of economy and society is what government officials do.
Third – and related to point number two – working to change the ideas that are widespread throughout society is, I believe, a far more important, responsible, and potentially effective task than is casting ballots in political elections. Of course, Bryan could do both of these tasks. But if he is (as he certainly is) already doing more than his share of one (trying to change ideas), perhaps he’s already, and without voting, doing at least his share to promote sound public policies.
There you have it. A battle of great minds over a topic that will likely only increase in relevance in the months and years ahead. What do you think? Do you vote? Do you encourage others to vote? Why or why not?